Arizona Bowl Game Preview: Three Keys to a San Jose State Win vs. Ball State
The Spartans look to finish their year undefeated against MAC champion Ball State. Here’s our preview of how SJSU can beat the Cardinals.
Can the Spartans climb one last mountain?
OFFERPAD ARIZONA BOWL: Ball State Cardinals (6-1, 5-1 Mid-American) vs. San Jose State Spartans (7-0)
WHEN: Thursday, December 31 — 11:00 AM PT/12:00 AM MT
WHERE: Arizona Stadium; Tucson, AZ
STREAMING: Fans can sign up to receive a free one-week trial of Fubo, which includes CBS, by following this link.
You can also find the audio broadcast on TuneIn.
RADIO: The San Jose State broadcast can be found on 860 AM (KTRB) out of Fremont. The Ball State broadcast can be found in and around Muncie, Indiana on 104.1 FM (WLBC).
SERIES RECORD: This is the first meeting between Ball State and San Jose State.
LAST GAME: San Jose State defeated Boise State in the Mountain West football championship, 34-20, while Ball State beat Buffalo for the Mid-American football title, 38-28.
ODDS (as of 12/29, via BetMGM): San Jose State -10
SP+ PROJECTION: San Jose State by 6.0 (63% win probability)
FEI PROJECTION: San Jose State by 3.9
The Mountain West football season is set to come to a close on New Year’s Eve in the unlikeliest way we may ever see, when the Ball State Cardinals and San Jose State Spartans clash in the Offerpad Arizona Bowl.
How unlikely is this first meeting? Back in the summer, the Las Vegas Superbook gave Ball State 8-to-1 odds to win the MAC, behind one team that would play just three games this fall (Ohio), another that would finish six points shy of their own potential run to the conference title (Toledo), and a third that reached the top 25 rankings before injuries derailed them in the MAC championship (Buffalo).
As for the Spartans, well, if you jumped on them early then you are doing quite well for yourself these days. San Jose State was 500-to-1 to win the Mountain West in March and 100-to-1 throughout the summer, but that didn’t stop them from reaching the doorstep of finishing what could be their best season ever.
Here’s how San Jose State can win the Arizona against Ball State.
Three Keys to a San Jose State Victory
1. Force Ball State to string together some long drives.
Offense is what defines both Ball State and San Jose State, as evidenced by the fact that not only are they both in the top 40 nationally by net points per drive, they are neck-and-neck in terms of offensive points per drive with 2.76 and 2.75 PPD, respectively, figures which rank 31st and 32nd overall.
The big difference between these two teams is that opponents have found it much tougher to move the ball down the field against the Spartans when backed up. In terms of available yards allowed per drive, San Jose State has given up just 46.6% of the field on average when their opponents start inside the 20. By contrast, Ball State has given up 58.8% of the field in those same situations, which ranks 102nd in the FBS.
Considering that the Cardinals do not have quite the same amount of explosiveness on offense, either, there’s a chance that the Spartans could dictate the terms of the game should they make an early stop or two.
2. Make Drew Plitt uncomfortable.
Ball State’s senior quarterback may not have operated on the same level as MAC compatriots as Kent State’s Dustin Crum or Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby this fall, but he proved that he could carry the Cardinals offense on his right arm. Plitt averaged 33 attempts per game and completed 65.8% of his passes with 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
The trick was in ensuring he had enough time to make plays, which the Cardinals struggled to do at times. Ball State allowed a 9.3% sack rate that ranked 103rd nationally and that figure went up in more obvious passing situations to 14.6%, which is promising news for the likes of Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko on San Jose State’s defensive front. If they can force Plitt to move like they did with Hank Bachmeier in the Mountain West championship game, they could be in very good shape as the game progresses.
3. Throw, throw, throw.
San Jose State didn’t appear too bothered by the fact that Boise State bottled up its running game and let Nick Starkel throw the ball 50 times as a result, and this bowl game could unfold in a pretty similar fashion if that’s what head coach Brent Brennan and offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven want.
Case in point: Ball State faced 36 pass attempts per game, the most in the MAC, and allowed opponents to complete 66.7% of those passes at 8.2 yards per throw. The Cardinals led the conference with 34 passes defended as a result — including five apiece from cornerbacks Amechi Uzodinma II and Antonio Phillips and first-team all-conference safety Bryce Cosby — but Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither and company could break what’s been a bendable unit if the quick passing game is on point one more time.
A lot has to go right for a team to climb to the top of any conference, but the fact that the Cardinals have escaped a staggering amount of sticky situations still leads one to wonder whether they have what it takes to trade blows with a team like the Spartans. San Jose State, after all, has won each of their games by double-digits and, at full strength, is the best team that Ball State has faced all season.
In this case, it comes down to the Cardinals defense, which may not have the players up front to keep Nick Starkel from doing damage against what is a pretty solid secondary behind them. Plitt, Hall and company should have it in them to score some points, but don’t expect them to keep up with San Jose State for sixty minutes.
San Jose State 38, Ball State 28